“U.S. Sides With Israel on Settling West Bank” declared the front-page New York Times headline (November 19). The Times, with its century-long opposition to the idea and eventual reality of a Jewish state within any borders, was upset at the prospect that Jews might continue to reside in Judea and Samaria, their biblical homeland. Worse yet, it was the administration of President Donald Trump, whose high crimes and misdemeanors the Times has relentlessly imagined, that has now announced its support for settlement growth – just as it had previously recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Golan Heights within the boundaries of Israel.
With Jerusalem Bureau Chief David Halbfinger reporting from Israel, and long-time Jerusalem reporter Isabel Kershner writing from New York, the Times made clear its dissatisfaction. Annexation opponents, Halbfinger wrote (citing only a former aide to Prime Minister Shimon Peres), warn that that “It puts Israel’s status as a Jewish democracy at risk.” Kershner relied upon a misapplication of international law. She cites the Fourth Geneva Convention, ratified by 192 nations following World War II, that commands an “occupying” power not to “deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
Clearly a response to forced transfers by Nazi Germany to concentration camps (and death), the Geneva Convention is hardly applicable to Israel and Jewish settlers. “Most of the world,” Kershner adds, “views the expansion of Israeli settlements as an impediment to peace.” She ignores the reality that before 1967, when there were no settlements and vulnerable Israeli borders invited repeated Arab attacks, there was no peace.
What do history and international law – not erroneous New York Times opinion articles – have to say about the return of Jews to their Biblical homeland? Times reporters ignore the fact that settlement of the Land of Israel has defined Zionism ever since the founding of Rishon l’Tzion, the first settlement, in 1882 – decades before the Kingdom of Jordan and self-identifying “Palestinians” existed to claim the West Bank as theirs.
Israeli settlement is explicitly protected by international agreements dating from the World War I era. The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine (1920) recognized “the historic connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” and “the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” There was no mention of Arabs; “Palestinians” did not yet exist. Where was “Palestine”? East and west of the Jordan River. Great Britain, the Mandatory Trustee, retained discretion to “postpone” or “withhold” the right of Jews to settle east – but not west – of the Jordan River. It became Trans-Jordan in 1922 to placate the territorial and national ambitions of Hashemite Sheikh (subsequently King) Abdullah.
Following World War II, Article 80 of the United Nations Charter (1945) preserved the right of the Jewish people to “close settlement” throughout the remaining portion of their homeland west of the Jordan River. But this internationally ratified legal right soon was flagrantly violated when Jordan invaded Israel in 1948 and conquered Biblical Judea and Samaria, which became its “West Bank.” After Jordan’s defeat in the Six-Day War nineteen years later, UN Security Council Resolution 242 allowed Israel to administer its newly acquired land until “a just and lasting peace in the Middle East” was achieved. There was no prohibition on Israeli settlement west of the Jordan River.
Even with peace, as Under Secretary of State Eugene V. Rostow noted, Israel would only be required to withdraw its armed forces from “territories” – not from “the territories” or “all the territories.” The absent “the” was intentional; proposals for a complete Israel withdrawal were defeated both in the UN Security Council and General Assembly. The “Jewish right of settlement” (in Judea and Samaria), Rostow added, “is equivalent in every way to the right of the existing [Palestinian] population to live there.” That right has not been abrogated. In the continuing absence of peace, Israel is under no obligation to limit settlement growth.
Even a little familiarity with history and international law would place The New York Times on the right side of journalistic accuracy. Editorializing about Israeli malfeasance belongs on the editorial and opinion pages, where it is so often found, not in its news coverage.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016